Clinical presentation and treatment of black widow spider envenomation: a review of 163 cases

R F Clark, S Wethern-Kestner, M V Vance, R Gerkin
Annals of Emergency Medicine 1992, 21 (7): 782-7

STUDY OBJECTIVE: To review cases of black widow spider envenomation to describe the clinical presentation and evaluate the efficacy of treatment.

DESIGN: Retrospective chart review.

SETTING: An urban toxicology referral center.

TYPE OF PARTICIPANTS: All patients attended by the toxicology service and discharged from our hospital between January 1982 and December 1990 with a diagnosis of black widow spider envenomation.

INTERVENTIONS: Inclusion criteria were either a positive black widow spider identification or a visible envenomation site ("target lesion"). Depending on the clinical presentation, patients were categorized as grade 1, 2, or 3 in severity. The efficacy and side effects of treatment alternative were evaluated.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: One hundred sixty-three patients met the inclusion criteria. The most common sites of envenomation were the upper and lower extremities. The most common presenting complaint was generalized abdominal, back, and leg pain. One hundred eighteen patients initially presented to our institution, and 45 were transfers. Pain relief of grade 2 and 3 envenomations was achieved most effectively with either black widow spider-specific antivenin alone or a combination of IV opioids and muscle relaxants. Fifty-eight patients received antivenin with complete resolution of symptoms in a mean time of 31 +/- 26.7 minutes. Of the 118 patients initially seen at our institution, the mean total duration of symptoms was 9 +/- 22.7 hours in patients receiving antivenin and 22 +/- 24.9 hours in patients not receiving antivenin. Fifty-two percent of patients not receiving antivenin required hospitalization, whereas only 12% of those receiving antivenin were admitted. One patient died of severe bronchospasm after receiving antivenin. Calcium gluconate was not effective in providing symptomatic relief in this series, with 96% of the grade 2 and 3 envenomations treated initially with calcium gluconate requiring the addition of IV opioids or other analgesics for symptomatic relief. Fifty-five percent of patients initially receiving IV morphine and 70% of those initially receiving both IV morphine and benzodiazepines obtained symptomatic relief without additional medication.

CONCLUSION: One hundred sixty-three envenomations by black widow spiders were reviewed and graded according to severity with treatment modalities evaluated. Although calcium gluconate usually has been considered the first-line treatment of severe envenomations by black widow spiders, we found it ineffective for pain relief compared with a combination of IV opioids and benzodiazepines. The use of antivenin significantly shortened the duration of symptoms in severe envenomations.


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